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Abortion rises again as election issue

South Dakota, Colorado, and California weigh measures.

By Staff writer / October 16, 2008

Earlier this month at a Denver event attended by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, Dr. Eliza Buyers said that a ballot initiative asking voters to decide when life begins could ban not only abortion but also some types of birth control and fertility treatments. Ritter opposes the measure, and has urged citizens to vote against it.

Kristen Wyatt/AP


Abortion is on the ballot in several states this fall, in measures that could have profound implications for the national debate on the issue.

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In South Dakota, voters will weigh in – for the second time in two years – on a ballot measure that would ban nearly all abortions in the state.

Advocates are optimistic that this time, with added exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother, voters will approve it.

In Colorado, a proposed amendment that could have sweeping implications for abortion, fertility clinics, and stem-cell research would officially define any fertilized egg as a “person” under the state constitution.

And in California, voters are seeing the third effort in four years to enact a law requiring parental notification before a minor can have an abortion.

While it’s not unusual for abortion-related issues to be on state ballots, the South Dakota and Colorado measures, in particular, are far-reaching and could ultimately form the basis of a challenge to Roe v. Wade, if either passes.

Those two measures have also been unusually divisive among the antiabortion community, and they offer a window into the direction that the abortion conversation is headed in the United States.

“Both the South Dakota and Colorado initiatives are really striking at the heart of Roe,” says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Both of them, if passed and there were litigation, would put them into the pipeline to eventually get to the Supreme Court.”

Last month, many pundits were predicting a reignition of the culture wars, as Sarah Palin’s nomination got Americans talking about abortion. But since then, the economic crisis has wiped cultural issues from the pages of newspapers and, perhaps, from many voters’ minds.

“The extraordinary economic events of recent weeks sort of drove them off center stage again,” says Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an antiabortion advocacy group in Washington. In the first two presidential debates, he notes, no questions focused on “values” questions. Still, Mr. Bauer says, “These issues will continue to be powerful, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, I think that long term, they will continue to hurt politically liberal candidates and help conservative candidates.”

In South Dakota, people are voting, essentially, on whether abortion should be legal. In a conservative state that is staunchly antiabortion, it would seem to be a no-brainer. But when voters faced a similar referendum two years ago, they voted it down 56 percent to 44 percent.